“Celebrating the Month of Nisan”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This coming Shabbat, the final Shabbat in the Hebrew month of Adar, is also known as Shabbat Parashat HaChodesh. An additional Torah scroll is taken out on this Shabbat and Exodus 12:1-20 is read, announcing the arrival of the month of Nisan. Parashat Hachodesh is the last of four special Shabbatot that surround the festival of Purim. Shabbat Shekalim and Shabbat Zachor precede Purim, and Shabbat Parah and Shabbat HaChodesh follow Purim.

Our rabbis instituted that on the Shabbat immediately preceding the first of Nisan, or on Rosh Chodesh itself if it occurs on Shabbat, Parashat Hachodesh is to be read. The Torah in Exodus 12:2 states, “Ha’cho’desh ha’zeh lah’chem rosh chah’dah’shim, ree’shohn hoo lah’chem l’chad’shay hah’shah’nah.” This month shall be for you the head of the months; it is the first for you of the months of the year.

Even though the Jewish New Year is celebrated on Rosh Hashanah, in the month of Tishrei, the Hebrew months are numbered from Nisan, the month in which the Exodus took place. By numbering the months in this manner, all the other months recall the month of Nisan. Thus, Iyar and Sivan are called the second and third months from Nisan, reminding us of the exodus from Egypt.

Nisan, therefore, is the first, the “king” of all months. In fact, this concept is alluded to in the word (Exodus 12:2) “lah’chem”--to you, which contains the same letters as the word “meh’lech“–king. As the king of all months, Nisan must be honored more than any other month, and therefore, as a token of respect, the new month of Nisan is announced in public on Shabbat, and is made “unique” by chanting a special reading from the Torah and the Haftorah.

Some of our later scholars point out a cogent distinction between the Jewish New Year that is celebrated on Rosh Hashana, and the new year that begins in Nisan. The Hebrew word for year, shana, is related to the word Yashan–old, and also to the word shayna–sleep. In effect, Rosh Hashanah itself emphasizes the old, set, and fixed, and conveys the idea that the laws of nature with which G-d ordained or created the world, are absolute and immutable. They are old. There is nothing new.

On the other hand, the Hebrew word for month–chodesh, is related to the Hebrew word chadash–new. Therefore, the month of Nisan underscores the miracles and wonders that are beyond the boundaries of nature. When G-d took the Jews out of Egypt in the month of Nisan, He suspended the laws of nature, and established a new path, and a new way of life that pertains to the Israelites alone. Those miracles remain with the Jewish people for all time.

It is in the month of Nisan that the children of Israel pray that the strength of their youth will be restored to them by both natural and supernatural means. It is in the month of Nisan that we expect the divine presence to be revealed. That is why it says, “La’chem” “this month is for you,” as if to say that something new should happen during this month–a new release, a new redemption.

Nisan is indeed a month “for you,” for us, and for the people of Israel. As the rabbis in the Talmud declare (Rosh Hashanah 11a), Israel was redeemed in Nisan, and Nisan will be the month in which their future redemption will take place.

There is additional significance to be noted regarding the month of Nisan. In ancient times, each new month was declared to have commenced on the basis of the testimony of witnesses who had sighted the new moon in the evening as it first appeared over Israel. On the other hand, the secular calendar, that is the solar calendar, is based on the sun. The nations of the world flourish during the time of light–when there is abundance and economic prosperity. The Jews, on the other hand, are able to prosper and survive even at night. From whence do they draw the strength to endure despite the darkness? It is due to the fact that the Jewish people are compared to the moon itself–constantly renewing itself. The Jews are not intimidated by dark and bleak periods. In fact, it was during times of great adversity, the enslavement in Egypt, that the Jewish people were melded into a nation and gained the strength to survive and prosper in the light that was to come.

May this coming new month of Nisan be a month of renewal and of inspiration, a month of joy and of peace, for Israel and for the entire world.

May you be blessed.